Everyone would agree that schools should nurture good values and attitudes in students. This general concern has influenced the school curriculum. The student, as a result, often receives massive doses of “moral science” and informal advice on “how to be good” from teachers and parents.
The Quality Education Study (QES) conducted in India’s “top schools” by Educational Initiatives and Wipro Applying Thought in Schools gives us reason to pause. Alas, our curricula are less than effective in value education. A large proportion of students seem to harbour attitudes and beliefs about crucial areas of social and personal life that show a bias and ignorance. Gender and sectarian bias, insensitivity to disability, and misconceptions about civic responsibility and ecological challenges are rife. For example, nearly 43% of students in classes 4, 6 and 8 felt that education for a girl is less important than for boys. Nearly half of the students had strong preconceptions about people of other religions and believe that religious differences matter and should be violently defended. It is sobering that the progressive values articulated in the founding document of our republic, the Constitution, have still not found wide acceptance in our schools.
Could it be that our top schools focus exclusively on academics and examinations, and less on values and attitudes of the students? A matter of poor balance, perhaps? Unfortunately, that consolation is not available to us. The study reports that students in “top schools” depend more on rote learning and less on understanding. These students fare poorly also in international comparisons of academic learning. It appears that they study too much and learn little. Let us also remind ourselves that we are talking about elite English-medium schools in our big cities and about students from well-to-do households.
I would like to argue that the failure in academic learning is closely linked to the failure to nurture values and sensitivity to others and nature. What links these two crucial failures in our schools is the fundamental weakness of our ideas about learning and how to bring it about. Educational psychologists have long been aware of the phenomenon of “inert” knowledge. Knowledge acquired as isolated chunks of information often does very little. True learning happens when the student builds, often gradually, coherent conceptual schemes about how the world works and is able to use these concepts to understand, explain and act in unfamiliar situations. Such learning is rarely ever a product of rote. It is, more often than not, a result of learning to cooperate, think critically, and experiment with diverse situations. Our schools, even the elite ones, have a long way to go in making this transition.
What does all this have to do with values? As I hinted earlier, values are not inert beliefs to be memorized. Nor are they just rules to be followed. Just like inert knowledge of physics is no knowledge at all, values that are learnt by rote have little use. And are often dangerous. My gender and religious bias is very likely to influence my thoughts and actions. It is clear, therefore, that values, if they have to add to personal and social well-being, must help students think and judge sensitively and help them understand and respond to novel challenges. When we confront bias and prejudice in ourselves (and in others), our values and attitudes should be robust enough to force us to stop and reflect, and choose our actions carefully.
Some people protest that values are a private matter and that the approach I have suggested assumes that some values are more true than others. Let us take these two claims and examine them. Are my values just my private business? It is clear that my values develop in a social setting. Young children emulate others and pick up dominant values from their peers and elders. Therefore, while values are often privately held, they are public entities and are socially significant. What about the claim that there are so many possible values that none of them can be true in any absolute sense? This argument is misleading. It notes the obvious fact that there is a diversity of values and jumps to the mistaken conclusion that they are all equally right or equally wrong.
It is this state of affairs that education must correct. Learning about values is not a matter of teaching the good ones. It is about helping students explore and understand the consequences of holding particular values. Discovering the consequences of bias and prejudice must be part of our curriculum. The Constitution urges us to respect others’ rights, and to participate peacefully in the democratic process. These civic values need to be discovered and nurtured.
What are the tools and methods that schools have to nurture values and attitudes that are alive in this sense? Critical thinking, empathy and dialogue are key aspects of such a learning process. Our schools and teachers need to become adept at encouraging students to question the conventional and to discover the meaning of the personal and civic values that promote well-being. As in the case of academic subjects, questioning and understanding values and the learning that results are crucial for our children’s future. The future of our society, too, depends on it.
Venu Narayan is one of the founders of Centre For Learning, Bangalore and is currently a member of the faculty of Azim Premji University.
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